MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”

PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.

“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”

Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia.  It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it.  Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.

At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera.  But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down.  What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.

It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy.  What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people.  But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.

Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome.  After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence.  She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark.  He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.

The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max.  The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film.  She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy.  He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun).  She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money?  He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”

These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced.  Mary’s father dies.  Max keeps having to buy goldfish.  Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her.  Uh, huh.

The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second.  As I say, it’s hard to describe.

A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s.  She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated.  She falls into a depression…

And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn.  I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?”  Yep, they are.  There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped.  I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right.  This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.

I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun.  I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness.  The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background.  The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.

And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years.  This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.

Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success.  For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam.  With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed.  It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works.  It just does.  Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen.  Seek this one out if you can.


Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.

Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.

MURIEL’S WEDDING (1994, Australia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: P.J. Hogan
Cast: Toni Collette, Bill Hunter, Rachel Griffiths
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 79% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

For years and years, I had always assumed Muriel’s Wedding was your stereotypical romantic comedy.  I mean, come on, it’s got Wedding right there in the title.  The story involves a quirky young woman, obsessed with weddings, who runs away from home to find a new life for herself.  Who knows…maybe she’ll get married herself?

But what am I saying, of COURSE she gets married…once again, it’s in the title.  So, based on that bit of logic, I never made any serious effort to watch this movie.  The rom-com has never been my absolute favorite genre.  For me to enjoy one, it has to really stand out in some way.  Either it must be REALLY different (Stranger Than Fiction), or it must be a shining example of the genre (The Philadelphia Story), or it must be so well written that it sneaks past my defenses (Jersey Girl – I know, I don’t get it either, I just responded to it, leave me alone).  I never imagined Muriel’s Wedding would meet any of those criteria.  On the surface, it didn’t look like much.

Welp…I was wrong.  Be warned because some story spoilers may follow, though I will do my best to be obtuse where necessary.

The plot: Muriel (Toni Collette, in the role that put her on the map) is a painfully awkward, overweight young woman who lives for weddings.  At the opening of the film, she is one of many women fighting for the tossed bouquet at a friend’s wedding, and the look on her face is of pure religious ecstasy.  She wears a hideous leopard print outfit completely out of place with…well, everyone.

Her home life is one of middle-class desperation.  She and her family live in a hopelessly hopeful seaside town called Porpoise Spit.  Her parents are in a loveless marriage, she and her oldest brother are on the dole (that’s “welfare” to us Yanks), and one of her sisters seems capable of greeting her only with the same phrase over and over again: “You’re terrible, Muriel.”  She has “friends”, but when they’re on their way to celebrate their newlywed friend’s discovery that her new husband is already cheating on her (long story), they tell Muriel point blank they don’t want her around anymore because she’s a drag on their image.  Muriel’s reaction to this news is as pitiful and heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

It was around this time that I started to wonder if the word Wedding in the film’s title was some kind of perverse code word for “suicide.”  What’s going on here?  There’s comedy here, but it’s comedy of awkwardness, the kind of comedy that can be painful to watch.

Through an improbable, but satisfying, chain of events, Muriel steals quite a bit of her father’s money, goes on an impromptu vacation, and meets an old schoolmate, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths, in her film debut), who gets Muriel to open up a little.  For the vacation resort’s talent show, they lip-synch and dance to “Dancing Queen” by Abba in white stretch pants, a scene that must have at least partially inspired the makers of Mamma Mia!  Instead of returning home after her vacation, Muriel moves to Sydney and tries to reinvent herself.  At her low points during this time, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the wedding gowns on display at the local bridal shops…

The rest I leave for you to discover.  One of the joys of this movie is how one thing leads to another in completely unexpected ways.  This was, without a doubt, one of the most unpredictable films of any kind that I have ever seen.  I can’t tell you how delightful it is whenever I find a movie that avoids cliches and narrative pitfalls and continually surprises me.

For example, there’s a scene involving – how can I say this without giving too much away – two people clumsily making out, a broken window, two naked men, and a malfunctioning beanbag cushion that had me laughing uproariously.  And then, just when I thought the scene was over, a curveball gets thrown that made me gasp audibly, as if I were watching footage of a dog getting run over.

The whole movie is like that.  For an hour and forty minutes, I was completely and utterly in the dark about what might be coming next.  The screenplay is bloody ingenious.  It starts with what looks like a generic rom-com premise, leads you down the garden path, then removes the path, and then removes the garden.  There are genuinely tender moments, and moments of delight (Muriel’s reactions during her first date are sheer perfection), and one or two shocking moments, and, and, and…  You get the idea.

Muriel’s Wedding gets high marks for its honest performances and its unfailing unpredictability.  The posters and especially the trailers paint the film as an “uproariously funny” comedy, and it is…at the funny parts.  There are also loads of dramatic surprises, and tender moments, and utterly unexpected plot twists.  It’s one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen.


By Marc S. Sanders

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a visual feast of the macabre set in a Depression era western America.  Every caption caught on film is unbelievable to look at, and while I know del Toro released his picture in black and white to enhance its film noir theme, I was truly delighted with the color version of the film.  With del Toro’s direction and photography designed by Dan Lausten, every dimension and sparkle of color from a sunset to a dreary cloud in the sky to the lights on a Ferris wheel spinning in an open field from the distance is absolutely jaw dropping.  Nightmare Alley is a modern technical masterpiece.  It makes me want to go back and watch the original 1947 version, as well as explore other productions in the film noir category.

Bradley Cooper portrays Stanton Carlisle, a murderous drifter who ends up accompanying a traveling carnival of garish figures who entertain their quirky qualities for townsfolk to be marveled and amazed.  There’s the flexible snakeman, the world’s strongest man (del Toro regular, Ron Perlman), the smallest man alive, the electrical woman, the psychic and the terrorizing, caged “geek” who will eat the head off a live chicken in front of your very eyes.  At first Stanton serves as a heavy meant to carry loads and set up and strike the tents and stages as the show moves from town to town.  He connects though with the psychic (Toni Collette) and the architect behind her façade (David Strathairn).  Soon, Stanton is adopting their techniques of using code words and hand gestures to “read the minds” of the various audience participants. 

He goes even further by redesigning the electrical woman’s presentation. Before she was using teslas to demonstrate her will to generate electrical currents.  Now she can be zapped in an electric chair.  The woman is Molly (Rooney Mara), and a relationship begins that sends her and Stanton on a successful tour away from the carnival where they entertain more sophisticated and wealthier nightclub guests with his psychic abilities.  One attendee, however, is on to Stanton’s devices, a beautifully alluring psychiatrist named Lilith (Cate Blanchett).  She maneuvers Stanton into using his manipulative talents into conning her clients.  She has recorded her sessions and will share confidential information with Stanton. Then, he will use that towards his ongoing psychic advantage as a means to swindle them of their fortunes.  Lilith and Stanton will split the rewards.  The play seems convincing enough for the likes of a wealthy industrialist named Ezra, played by Richard Jenkins yearning to reconnect with his deceased wife at a cost of thousands of dollars for Stanton’s services.

The narrative of Nightmare Alley is so absorbing.  Everything is beautifully staged.  A fun house hall of mirrors has a décor of disturbing imagery.  Stanton enters this place symbolically at the beginning of the film in search of the runaway “geek.”  The surroundings display the seven deadly sins around a large skull and other haunted house imagery.  del Toro demonstrates what Stanton is about to enter, which occupies the remainder of the film.  Stanton performs on the motivations of greed and lust and vanity.  Maybe, pride as well.  At least those are the first couple of sins that come to my mind.  How will his actions reflect back on him later on, though?

The film is also performed by a magnificent cast.  Cooper is doing some of his best work here.  While I feel like I’ve seen Blanchett’s deceitful character before, I don’t mind.  I can’t think of anyone else to play the role.  Curiously, del Toro has Mara, with her snow-white complexion, dressed in red quite often amid a cast of characters and extras wearing blacks and dark greys.  She’s meant to stand out as the innocent.  Molly questions Stanton’s decisions while also trying to convince him to end his charades.  Yet, she only serves as a disturbing pawn in the shyster’s tricks.  Will Stanton corrupt Molly though?  It’s one thing to put on a magic show for a couple of hours each night.  It’s another when you are swindling the massive fortunes of others and toying with their despair. 

Other surprise performers that appear include Willem Dafoe as the showman for the “geek,” and a late appearance by Tim Blake Nelson to close out the film and deliver what’s to come of Stanton. 

Nightmare Alley deliberately moves at a slow pace, but that only allows you to take in its various environments.  From the carnival tents to the nightclubs to the alleyways, to Ezra’s snow covered never-ending garden, and even Lillith’s gold embossed office of cabinetry and furniture are so hypnotic and dark in its intended film noir way.  Again, while I’m sure there’s some striking qualities to the black and white interpretation of the film, I really fell in love with the colors provided by Lausten’s photography.

I won’t call this a favorite film of mine, but I loved the journey of it all.  I appreciated the script by del Toro and Kim Morgan, adapted from the novel by Lindsay Gresham, that depicts a sinful man like Stanton devolve into more sin, until he’s only undone by a smarter sinner than he; a sinner masked within beauty and wealth with a noble and educated profession.  Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett perform beautifully with one another.  They make a terrific pair.  I only hope they’ll do another film together.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn
My Rating: 6/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80% Certified Fresh

PLOT: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

No good movie is too long; no bad movie is short enough. – Roger Ebert

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s longest film to date at exactly two-and-a-half hours.  Going by Ebert’s dictum above, I have to say that it was too long by maybe a half hour or more, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” film.  Just a poorly edited one.

The story revolves around a Depression-era drifter with a troubled past who becomes a carny with the kind of flea-bitten traveling circus that tours all the urban hotspots of Iowa and Kansas, and which is almost all sideshows: a psychic (Toni Collette), a giant (played by del Toro regular Ron Perlman), a rubber man, a girl impervious to electrical currents (Rooney Mara), and a geek show, among other things.  What’s a geek show, you ask?  Why, that’s where people pay two bits to watch a man bite the head off a live chicken.  We are shown one such performance in the opening minutes of the film.  It’s hard for me to believe people were entertained by this, no matter how long ago it was.  I mean, the geek did not look like he was having much fun…although he did seem to be having more fun than the chicken.

Anyway, to make a long story short, the carny, named Stanton (Bradley Cooper), befriends the psychic and her husband (David Strathairn) and reveals that he has always been a student of human behavior, and with a few quick observations, he can make factual statements about someone that boggle the mind.  One thing leads to another, and eventually he leaves the carny behind, with the electrical-current girl, Molly, in tow.  Soon he is headlining nightclubs and posh bars with his mind-reading act, with Molly as his assistant.  One night a beautiful psychiatrist with a level-headed gaze (Cate Blanchett) sees one of his performances and suggests a con: she will provide detailed information about her rich and powerful patients on the sly, and he will do command performances for these elites, making them both rich.  What happens next, I leave for you to discover.

(I must be honest: this is not the kind of film I was expecting from del Toro.  A character study of tragic greed and hubris?  Where are the monsters?  The supernatural nightmares of the title?  But I’m always telling people to criticize the movie the filmmakers made, and not the movie you wish they had made.  I press on.)

I’m finding it hard to summarize my thoughts here.  The movie looked great.  I mean, it looked amazing.  At one point, Stanton runs into the carnival’s funhouse looking for someone, and it’s filled with the kind of over-the-top prop demons and fake ghosts that made me hope we would get a later sequence where these things came alive in some horrifying way.  But no, it’s just intended as throwaway scenery, glimpsed once and never seen again.

There is an extended sequence where Stanton tries to revamp Molly’s act as the “Electric Girl”, coming up with new costumes, new props, new patter (patter is important with sideshows), and it’s a relatively lengthy sequence which felt like it was setting something up.  And, yeah, there’s kind of a payoff, but not the kind I felt it was building towards.

The movie left me with a vague sense of frustration throughout.  We are fed gobs of information about the tricks used by sideshow psychics, the sad ploy used to hire the geeks, the psychic’s husband looms large in the story and then abruptly becomes a non-factor, and it just went on and on and on.  Then in the “riches” part of the rags-to-riches story, Stanton has become insufferable, a believer of his own press releases, willing to put his livelihood (and his life) in jeopardy for that one last big job.

This is all very intriguing stuff, on paper.  But as executed and written, there seemed to be unnecessarily long scenes with loads of information being dumped on us with nothing moving the action forward.  I would pay money to watch Cate Blanchett read a Denny’s menu, but even her extended “therapy” sessions with Bradley Cooper felt interminable.  I felt like those random crowds in Monty Python and the Holy Grail periodically yelling, “GET ON WITH IT!”

To be fair, the Stanton character does eventually get his comeuppance, in literally the final ten minutes of the film.  Full disclosure, I will say without spoilers that it is very gratifying, it had me and some random dude behind me exclaiming loudly in the movie theater, and it features some of the best acting Bradley Cooper has ever done.  But…it came long after I had started shifting in my seat and wondering if I would miss anything important if I ran to get some more candy.

I give Nightmare Alley a 6 out of 10, mainly because it looks so damn good.  del Toro has yet to make a movie that doesn’t look masterful (yes, even Blade II is a beauty to behold).  Also, the acting all around is top notch.  There’s talk Cooper may get an Oscar nod, which wouldn’t surprise me.  But it boils down to a very, VERY long drive for an all-too-short day at Denouement Beach.  A ninety-minute movie crammed into 150 minutes.  Alas.


By Marc S. Sanders

Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out is an attempt to reinvent the Agatha Christie blueprint of The Who Done It? Murder Mystery. It primarily succeeds even if it is a little cookie cutter in its screenplay.

Famed best selling mystery writer Harlan Thrombley (Christopher Plummer) is discovered by his maid in his reading room to have slit his throat. All evidence points to suicide. Police follow through with simple procedural questioning of his next of kin, and yet a private detective (Daniel Craig) with an outstanding puzzle solving reputation is hired with a delivered envelope of cash from an unknown source. If it’s suicide, then why a detective, and who had reason to hire him?

Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc (great name) adopts a hilarious Kentucky southern drawl to rattle the cages of possible suspects, assuming that perhaps this wasn’t suicide. Could it have been…MURDER?

The suspects consist of family members and each is well exaggerated in their physical descriptions. Johnson wrote these connivers with possible motives to set them apart from one another-first by casting well known actors and then giving most of them a garish appearance or unusual trait. Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda with a short white as snow haircut and black circled glasses looks like no one else I can recall. Michael Shannon as Walt with a cane and exaggerated limp, not too bright but also quite discomforting. Don Johnson as Richard only with a goatee, Toni Collette as Joni putting on a bug eyed expression with ditzy delivery. Chris Evans as Ransom, with clean shaven good looks and a toothy smile in preppy, yet snobbish looking sweaters. Finally, Ana de Armas as Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who seems to be the only one devastated by what has transpired, and somehow inadvertently ends up being more involved than she ever expected. She can’t lie. If she does, she can’t help but vomit. A disadvantage perhaps but maybe a convenient advantage at times as well.

Early on, interviews are shown and it appears everyone has reason to maintain a grudge against Harlan. So if Harlan was in fact murdered, well then it’s fair to presume one of these people might have reason to commit the crime. A will is eventually read and then even more twists present themselves. Someone definitely wanted Harlan out.

Rian Johnson spells it out easily for the viewer. Each suspect has his/her own place in the film to toy around with. While I didn’t find it too challenging to predict a likely suspect that has orchestrated what’s occurred, it was more fun for me to watch how it was all pieced together. I kept asking myself what’s so important about the dogs or the baseball or the silent “Great Nana” (K Callan) who sits around the house but surely must have something to contribute.

Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammet still hold as the much more clever writers. Still, Daniel Craig is having a blast in his role, conceived by Johnson. I’d like to see another mystery with this character. He’s funny at appearing unconcerned with new developments that could be occurring while he’s really just waiting for the inevitable fact that reveals the absolute truth.

Following leaving the scene of an arson a potential suspect makes an unexpected stop. Craig as Detective Blanc opts to wait in the car and put his ear buds on to sing show tunes. Who would do that? Yet, that’s what’s hilariously fun about this picture. A man has died but the shallowness of his surviving family and the disconnect of the detective are the entertainment factor.

Rian Johnson knows how to keep Knives Out amusingly interesting with a curiosity that does not stop.